The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym by Paula Byrne

The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym  cover

I read most of Barbara Pym’s books back in the 1970s and enjoyed them, so when via NetGalley I was offered the chance to read The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym by Paula Byrne I was keen to do so. Not for the first time though where authors are concerned I wished I hadn’t because I found Pym to be quite unlikeable. Paula Byrne has written the book using Pym’s diaries, but as Pym had obviously intended that they would end up in some sort of archive and had an eye on her posterity I can’t help wondering how honest the diary is. Also lots of pages had been torn out, Byrne assumed that those pages were seen as being too revealing on reflection and assumed they were about her sexual exploits – and for those days she was certainly adventurous it seems. She was no virginal spinster, which is fair enough although unusual as at a time when the male students and dons at Oxford had to resort to prostitutes in Oxford or further afield in London, as most women were terrified of getting pregnant. Barbara Pym was literally stalking men that she fancied and falling into bed with them. Some have taken this trait of hers as proof that she was a woman before her time. If you see being a modern woman as being a victim of philandering, arrogant and self-centred men then she was indeed a woman before her time, I think she was just incredibly immature and niave. It would seem that she never got beyond the obsessive crush stage that was so common among the young girls who were starved of male company at the boarding school she attended. She also adopted alternative personas. I can just imagine all those misogynistic dons at Oxford rolling their eyes and commenting to each other that they knew it would be like this when women students were accepted!

In 1934 she went to Germany and became besotted with Hitler, stalking him and frequenting the restaurant she knew he used. Of course she ended up falling for a Nazi close to Hitler, Friedbert Gluck was an SS officer. On her return to the Oxford village she was living in she saluted the local shopkeeper with a Heil Hitler while wearing a black shirt and presumably the swastika pin her Nazi boyfriend had given her. Truly the locals must have wondered whether to laugh or cry. It was only after the outbreak of WW2 that she thought she might have been wrong about the Nazis but she was still hankering after Friedbert. She even had to be advised to expunge the Nazi/German bits in one of her books before sending it to a publisher. She definitely lacked a moral compass!

Sadly she never matured and was still falling for completely unsuitable men in her old age, an almost forty year age gap didn’t seem to bother her. The poor lad! Never much of a looker she was described as looking like Joyce Grenfell (comedienne) but she had a thing for tall, dark handsome men who went on to marry someone else, or else were homosexual. During the war she was living in a shared house with another woman and her two children, the woman was described as her best friend, but when that friend’s philandering husband came to visit his family it didn’t stop Pym from falling into bed with him instead of leaving him to his wife and children. Her poor so-called friend must have thought – et tu Barbara! But of course when he did get a divorce from his wife, he married another woman.

So it would seem that Barbara Pym had no conscience whatsoever when it came to men, sex and Nazism and was a nightmare neighbour as she spied on them to use them as characters in her books, even stalking them when they left their house. Whatever happened to using your imagination?!

Strangely there’s no mention of fear of getting pregnant in this book, that was what stopped most women from sleeping around back then. Pym’s father was the illegitimate result of a seduction between a 16 year old ‘young master’ and a 19 year old housemaid, his mother. Barbara knew about that as her father was quite proud of being a by-blow of a wealthier family. Possibly she thought that if she did get pregnant then it would lead to marriage.

I read most of Pym’s books back in the 1970s and had a re-read of a few of them a decade or so ago and didn’t enjoy them as much as I had when I was younger, although there is some witty dialogue, but it would seem that she was really just recounting things she had overheard people saying.

Im later years Barbara Pym lived in fear of her younger sister Hilary re-marrying as they were living together, and Hilary was really supporting Barbara who earned very little money. There’s a lot more in this book but not much of it is admirable, you’ll have gathered that I was less than impressed by her adventures.

I’ve always wondered about the authors that weren’t championed so vociferously and publicly on TV by Lord David Cecil and Philip Larkin, which is what kick-started her writing career when it was floundering. It’s handy having friends in high places!

Bookshelf Travelling in Insane Times – 26th, September

Here we go again, how quickly the time comes around, it’s Bookshelf Travelling in Insane Times, and this week it’s another guest bedroom bookshelf. This meme was of course started by Judith, Reader in the Wilderness, but I’m gathering the posts at the moment.

Jane Austen and E F BensonBooks

I had to photograph this shelf in two separate photos as the bed got in the way! The shelf contains a hardback set of Jane Austen books, they’re not the best quality and haven’t worn well over the years as the paper has yellowed, but they’re better than reading the paperbacks. The Folio books are lovely, it’s the Mapp and Lucia series by E.F. Benson which I find really entertaining.

Barbara Pym and Anthony Trollope Books

The Barbara Pym books are the second incarnation as in a house move I decided to get rid of my originals – and then of course regretted doing it. This shelf is home to books that I will happily re-read, and that’s not something that I do a lot of. In fact they’re mainly the kind of books that are ideal for dipping into at random if you can’t get to sleep. I really like Anthony Trollope’s books, but of the ones that I’ve read they’ve mostly been on my Kindle, free from Project Gutenberg. There are a few actual Trollopes on this shelf though, but they don’t come under the category of great bedtime reading although I definitely have done so in the past.

Other Bookshelf Travellers this week are:

A Son of the Rock

Bitter Tea and Mystery

Staircase Wit

Book Purchases


We were walking down that steep hill which leads to Linlithgow Palace, after enjoying another visit there, this time accompanied by Peggy from PA when I spotted a sign in the doorway of one of the shops.

Don’t look now I said to Jack but that sign says BOOK SALE!

We tried to get past it. Honestly, especially as Peggy has bought so many books over the past three weeks she has been staying with us that she will have to pack them up in a couple of boxes and send them home to the US the long way over the pond.

Anyway, we got dragged through that doorway just by the thought that there might be some books in there which we’ve been wanting for years and as you can see from the photo above I did find more than a couple which I couldn’t bypass. The sale was something to do with World Book night.

1. The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell
2. The Perfect Murder by Peter James
3. Picadilly Jim by P.G. Wodehouse
4. A Desert in Bohemia by Jill Paton Walsh
5. No Fond Return of Love by Barbara Pym
6. Revenge of the Middle Aged Woman by Elizabeth Buchan
7. Garden Herbs – The Garden Handbooks

I read the Barbara Pym book yonks ago and gave my copy away but I feel it’s time for a re-read. The only book by Jill Paton Walsh which I’ve previously read was the one which was begun by Dorothy Sayers and Walsh finished it off. I couldn’t resist the Elizabeth Buchan book, just because of the title. Wodehouse just hits the spot at times when you can’t face reading anything too taxing on the brain. The Maggie O’Farrell book was recommended by Peggy. I haven’t read anything by Peter James before so I thought I’d give him a go, and lastly I bought the Garden Herbs book as it’s so comprehensive – in fact if I ever fancy becoming a white witch this one will be my bible. I have a feeling that Jack might think I already am a white witch, but that’s husbands for you!

An Unsuitable Attachment by Barbara Pym

It’s a while since I finished reading An Unsuitable Attachment. Judith, Reader in the Wilderness and I were going to have a bit of a readalong originally but I’m not sure if she ever got around to it, due to her work commitments.

If you want to read about Barbara Pym’s career you’ll find this Telegraph article by Philip Hensher interesting.

An Unsuitable Attachment was first published in 1982, after Pym’s death. It had been turned down by her publisher in 1963, deemed to be too old fashioned for the times and thought to be unlikely to sell well. It isn’t one of my favourites but it’s still worthwhile reading.

The setting is London and there’s the usual cast of characters, a vicar and his wife, some librarians, neighbours, church parishioners and of course I can’t miss out the cat called Faustina. The book does seem quite dated, for instance ‘shillings’ are mentioned and of course by the time the book was eventually published the UK had embraced decimalisation and shillings didn’t exist any more.

There is a foreword by the poet Philip Larkin who was a friend of Barbara Pym’s and he said: ‘She has a unique eye and ear for the small poignancies and comedies of everyday life.’

I must just mention that I was perusing a blog a while ago and came across a post about Barbara Pym in which the writer claimed that Pym’s career had been successful because of readers who had sort of passed the word around about her. I had to laugh as that seems like teenagers who always think that THEY are the ones who discovered sex.

Barbara Pym’s career in writing was at a standstill for years after An Unsuitable Attachment, her seventh novel was rejected by her publisher. It wasn’t until Lord David Cecil and Philip Larkin wrote praising her work in the Times Literary Supplement in 1977 that her career was kick started again and her books have all been in print since then. I know this because I was one of the many people who started reading her books then, well as a Jane Austen fan I had to compare the two, as Pym was being hailed as a modern day Austen.

It does help to have friends in high places, it’s a shame that all deserving authors don’t have the same luck.

Book Sale at St Andrew’s and St George’s Edinburgh

We got up early on Saturday morning so that we wouldn’t be too late in getting to the book sale in St Andrew’s and St George’s Church in Edinburgh, the proceeds all go to Christian Aid. It was Linda from Edinburgh who reminded me of the sale, so a big thank you to Linda!

St Andrew's & St George's Church
By the time we got to the church it was really chucking it down with rain and the books outside the church all had plastic covers over them and everbody had packed into the church – it was heaving with folks and it made it very difficult to see the books, but I persevered, and we went our separate ways. I ran out of money, had to find Jack, found him in the crowd, waved madly, he didn’t see me, he went in the opposite direction, the woman at the stall seemed to think I was going to nick her books, but in the end it was all sorted out and the upshot was I spent a lot of money and Jack didn’t spend nearly as much, that’s usually the way of it. As you can see from the photo above, by the time we got upstairs the rain had stopped and the crowd had thinned.

I couldn’t resist taking this photo of the newly redecorated church, it has had a lot spent on it recently and the organ has been refurbished.
St Andrew's & St George's Edinburgh

It was the ceiling which really attracted me though, beautiful, but I’m glad I didn’t have to paint it. Internally the church is really lovely with pale wood, maybe golden oak and the pews all have blue velvet buttoned cushions, I’m sure in my young day that would have been seen as being un-Presbyterian and just too comfy for church-goers. How times
St Andrew's & St George'sChurch Edinburgh

Anyway, to the books, here they are.


The three in the middle are:
The House That Is Our Own by O. Douglas
The Provincial Lady in Wartime by E.M. Delafield
Hons and Rebels by Jessica Mitford. I’ve read it, but it was over 30 years ago I’m sure and was a library book.I want to read it again.

The other one which can’t be seen very well is:
We Are Still Married by Garrison Keillor. I’ve never read anything by him but I enjoy listening to him on Radio 4 extra on Sunday afternoons whilst cooking the dinner.

Two of the vintage crime Penguins I haven’t even heard of.

The Content Assignment by Holly Roth
Comes the Blind Fury by Douglas Rutherford

The third Penguin is Captain Cut-Throat by John Dickson Carr.

The Things We See is a Penguin book which just screams 1950s at you and is about design. It has some lovely photos and even the endpapers are 1950s design.

Civil To Strangers by Barbara Pym. I’ve read quite a lot of her books but most of them so long ago, I can’t remember if I’ve read this one or not. If so, it’s due a re-read.

Anna Buchan and O.Douglas by Wendy Forrester is a book which I’ve been looking for.

The Prince and the Pilgrim by Mary Stewart is one I’ve been meaning to buy for ages, it’s the last in her Merlin/Arthur series and I’m going to read it for the up and coming Mary Stewart readalong at Gudrun’s Tights.

Oasis of the North by Dawn MacLeod is about Inverewe Gardens in the north west of Scotland.

Scottish Highland Watercolours by Sutton Palmer is a collection of 16 watercolours of the Highlands, all very scenic.

I could have bought a lot more books and this week I’ve been restraining myself from getting on a bus and going back for another look because I really didn’t get a chance to look at the many gardening and craft books which were on sale. But I think I’ll be good and resist the temptaion, particularly as there is another library book sale locally on Saturday. The George Street, Edinburgh book sale continues until the end of the week.

Civil To Strangers by Barbara Pym

I borrowed this book from Dunfermline library which is the first ever Andrew Carnegie library. I was just having a mooch around to see what they had different because it isn’t my local library, and ended up looking at the large print books. This Barbara Pym book jumped out at me, I didn’t even realise it had been published. I think I read most of her books way back in the 1970s.

It’s a collection of unpublished Pym works, some of them unfinished but a lot of the characters are quite recognisable as she was into recycling and waste not want not, like all people of her generation, and she did the same with her characters.

In my experience, some scenes from Barbara Pym’s books linger in my memory forever so I was amused to see that she has a vicar giving a sermon, the idea for which he had got from an elderly parshioner. She had mentioned to him that some people didn’t put enough stitches into their embroidery. It was similar to a vicar in another of her books, I can’t remember which one, but he got an idea for a sermon from one of the church cleaning ladies who mentioned that she got more satisfaction from polishing the wood than the brass.

Anyway, this collection contains an early novel, three novellas and an autobiographical essay, “Finding a Voice”, which is Pym’s only written comment on her writing career. There is also an unfinished Home Front Novel which she began to write in 1939 but war work seems to have got in the way of her finishing it, which is such a shame because I was enjoying it.

Apart from anything else Barbara Pym was a great observer of people and she must have met quite a few ghastly ones in her time, particularly in the drawing-rooms of North Oxford, but I’m sure we’ve all met the same types, wherever we are in the world. Her men are just – something else, but worryingly she gets certain characters absolutely spot on. I’ve come across a lot of self obsessed and idiotic, lecturing males in recent months, and honestly, if I couldn’t laugh at them, I’d be screaming!

An Academic Question by Barbara Pym

An Academic Question

I read quite a few books by Barbara Pym way back in the 1970s but not this one. Barbara Pym died in 1980 and this book was published posthumously in 1986. She wrote to the poet Philip Larkin about the book in 1971 and was still tinkering with it in 1972 when she started writing her better known book Quartet in Autumn and An Academic Question was abandoned.

Generally her books were set in small villages and were about the lives of the inhabitants, sort of updated Jane Austen, vicars and all.

As you would expect from the title, An Academic Question is set in a university, not a lofty prestigious one but one of the then new ‘red brick’ universities founded in the late 60s and generally thought of as jumped up techs at the time. It’s the 70s so the students are revolting!

Caroline Grimstone is the wife of a young lecturer who is hoping that the research paper he is about to publish will make his name in the realms of ethnohistory. Caroline isn’t in love with her husband Alan but after seven years of marriage she is just getting on with it whilst worrying about being a good enough mother to her small daughter and how she can help further Alan’s career. Caroline is aware of how disappointed her own mother is by her choice of husband. You know what Larkin said ‘They f*** you up, your mum and dad.

This is an interesting read although not as good as I remember Quartet in Autumn or Excellent Women to have been. There is some wit, I enjoyed the characters of Coco and Kitty especially as I knew a mother and son combination exactly like them, but the book has a very dated feeling for some reason. I’m certainly no stranger to older books and I was a young thing in the 70s and started working then but I had half forgotten how things were for women in the workplace then, very much second class!

The blurb on the back says ‘Will be read in decades hence for its good writing as much as for its offbeat sociological interest’ TIME OUT

And they were so right. I had completely forgotten about cigarette coupons and people collecting them, having to smoke thousands of fags to exchange the coupons in the packets for pyrex dishes and such, things that they could have bought for about the price of two packets of ciggies – crazy!

Anyway the setting was a bit of a nostalgia trip for me, back to the 1970s of university and the library and it was a very quick read at just 182 pages.

Crampton Hodnet by Barbara Pym

I haven’t read anything by Barbara Pym for about 30 years, I started reading her books in 1977 when Lord David Cecil said that she was a modern day Jane Austen, so obviously I had to give her a go like many other people, and I wasn’t disappointed.

She began to write Crampton Hodnet in 1939 just after the outbreak of war but war work got in the way and so it wasn’t actually published until 1985, after Barbara Pym had died.

I suppose a lot of the ingredients of Barbara Pym books are similar to Jane Austen’s – vicars, tea parties, humour, splendid spinsters, worried wives, bright young things, annoying relatives, bitchiness and gossip. Most of all though it’s the sharp observation of human beings which I like. Anyway it all adds up to an entertaining read which is set mainly in Oxford.

It was just what I needed to make me laugh after my exasperating experience with the character of Charity in the previous book which I read.

Road Trip Book Haul

October 2011 books

I suppose there are worse addictions to be afflicted with but I just couldn’t stop myself from hitting every second-hand bookshop which I found on our journey from Fife to East Anglia. My excuse is that I think we’re going to suffer yet another horrendous winter and if we’re snowed/iced in again I’ll need plenty of reading material, but if I’m honest, I’m never going to be in danger of running out of books to read. I think they just about all come under the category of comfort reads and they’re all fairly ancient, the most recent publication is Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy and even that’s fairly old – 1985, and probably isn’t a comfort read but I’m sure I’ll enjoy it. So this is what I bought and I have to say that I don’t feel too naughty because I could have bought a lot more …

The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster
The Making of a Marchioness by Frances Hodgson Burnett
The Setons by O. Douglas
The Crowded Street by Winifred Holtby
Going It Alone by Michael Innes
Voices in Summer by Rosamunde Pilcher
An Academic Question by Barbara Pym
An Unsuitable Attachment by Barbara Pym
Crampton Hodnet by Barbara Pym
Ankle Deep by Angela Thirkell
Close Quarters by Angela Thirkell
Growing Up by Angela Thirkell
Enter Sir Robert by Angela Thirkell
Summer by Edith Wharton

… and last but not least Crime Stories from The Strand which is a lovely Folio book of short stories by crime writers such as Conan Doyle, G.K. Chesterton, A.E.W. Mason and many more. I was especially chuffed to get the four Thirkells, three of which I bought from a stall in Cambridge market, her books don’t often turn up in Scotland for some reason, strange really as she’s at least half Scottish.

I’m hoping to have sorted through some photos from our trip by tomorrow.